What I Learned From Father Benedict

A year ago, Sophia Institute Press took a chance on an unknown, largely untested writer who had not a single published book to his name before Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI was released in November 2016. I was that greenhorn, and a year later, I have learned still a few things more about both Pope Emeritus Benedict and the world the Catholic finds herself at the end of 2017.

The following points were formed from listening and chatting with others on their impressions of Benedict’s legacy. They reveal a public still grasping much of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict’s contribution to the life of the faith. His resignation in 2013 still looms as a point for many of confusion. Yet as committed Catholics continue navigating a post-modern, post-religious faith landscape (I have even heard it referred to as a “post-truth” era), Pope Benedict remains a guide—if only we give him a chance—in peeling the prideful scales from our eyes towards a deeper responsibility to the mission put forward by Christ Jesus.

A Smaller Church

The endurance of the haunting, prophetic words Joseph Ratzinger made in 1970 that has been cited not only in Father Benedict but in other articles and videos from other Catholic commentators has clearly struck a chord: “The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to [the Church] losing an important part of its social privileges. It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again” (quoted from Faith and the Future, p. 116). The frequency of this passage cited to me personally by folks has been the most consistent reference to Benedict XVI in the past year.

We would be blind not to admit such a reduction has occurred over the last generation as Ratzinger predicted. I grew up outside Cleveland, Ohio, where bustling suburban parishes and ethnic inner-city parishes equally existed, yet a slow decline was palpable. In the last fifteen years, swaths of parishes across Cleveland have closed or merged, a prototype for an endemic that has seized the nation. In many communities across the United States, the small groups of faithful Catholics who have noted the shrinking congregation around them at Mass are all too aware of a general air of indifference to matters of faith. In this way, they are not unlike the early Christian movement, the Way, that convened clandestine and underground as the status quo—the Roman Empire—sought to destroy it.

And yet, Joseph Ratzinger in this prophetic passage finds in these smaller numbers hopeful signs: “[The Church] may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

As secular culture continues to drown in the heap of man-made distractions and unfettered morals nearly fifty years later, perhaps indeed the future pope was right all along.

Processing the Resignation

“Pray for me,” the new Pope Benedict XVI implored at his Inaugural Mass in 2005, “that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” To not a few since his stunning abdication, it actually seems he did flee from the wolves. Almost from the beginning, the factual and the conspiratorial have blurred. If anyone were to spend time tracing some of the Internet theories they would soon resemble Alice down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

But one thing is certain: Benedict’s decision was unprecedented. He broke the long, unspoken rule about the papacy: popes don’t resign. But for whatever the reason—and we must still take Benedict’s own words to heart that he simply could not go on—in withdrawing he made it clear that a papal reign is anything but personal. Benedict thought it better for the church that another pick up the crozier. And when papal secretary Archbishop Ganswein mentioned in 2016 an “expanded” Petrine Office—one active, another contemplative—there was another explosion of uproar in various circles. But could he not mean simply that in his retirement Benedict remains committed to his ministry in prayer? Why should we undermine the power of prayer from someone as spiritually connected as Joseph Ratzinger? And yet, theories and confusion will continue to be sown, even some thinking that Benedict remains the one true pope (an idea not to be confused with sedevacantists, who recognize no elected pope after Pius XII.)

So much of life is out of our control. Not everything needs to be fully explained. We can choose to dwell in intrigue, or we can make something of our time beyond the politics of the moment. How will we answer the question, “[W]hen the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

The Highest Responsibility

He was ordained in 1951. In June, he will celebrate his 67th year as a priest. In those decades, Joseph Ratzinger has left us volumes of work, such as his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, singularly related to one thing: bringing the people to God and God to the people. In this way, he is not unlike the prophets of old. And like those prophets, Benedict knows being Christian is not without difficulty. So he has given us a plethora of material to find something that can speak to each of us. I suggested a few in my article, “Father Benedict: 5 Must Reads.”

Additionally, the liturgy remains the most pivotal part of our lives. Thanks to Pope Benedict’s tireless efforts in renewing the importance of the liturgy, the faithful have a responsibility in ensuring a respectful commemoration of Jesus Christ’s Passion at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

And that responsibility, that commitment, that flourishing of The Catholic Mind is Benedict’s final entrustment to the faithful: Now it is up to us. Catholics have a higher standard, a greater responsibility than most. Expectations are higher; we are leaders, not followers. We cannot simply react, comment, and idly pass judgment on what is transpiring around us. Instead, Catholics have a duty, indeed the highest responsibility to “enlighten consciences.” Who else but the Church Universal? Benedict XVI himself said:

The Church proclaims and proposes truth not only with the authority of the Gospel, but also with the power that derives from reason. This is precisely why she feels duty bound to appeal to every person of goodwill in the certainty that the acceptance of these truths cannot but benefit individuals and society.

It is time for the Catholic to quit being embarrassed or silent about matters of the faith. Your very existence is to live and impart that faith to others. Imagine the possibilities, and then go and do it—until you can do it no more. Like Joseph Ratzinger.

image: By WolleHolzwickede (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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